When is the Communion Song Supposed to Start?

I was chatting with a colleague who is a nationally recognized speaker this morning about a question that frequently comes up in formation for music ministry. My colleague and I agreed that many church musicians could benefit from more information in this area.

It’s such a common question that that when FontSound was getting ready to make our first set of videos back in May, one of our colleagues suggested this topic. We’ll probably be redoing this video soon, but you can watch the original here.

So, when is the communion procession supposed to start? In a nutshell, the communion song begins when the priest receives communion.

Why? Well there are a variety logical and theological reasons why the communion song begins when the priest receives communion.

Very simply, the communion song begins when the priest receives because the communion procession itself begins when the priest receives. We sing whenever there is procession movement during the liturgy becuase the core of our faith-the trinity- is processional. Since there is only one trinity, it would also make sense to find creative ways to extend a single song until the very last person receives.

When it is rightfully treated as a single, unified liturgical action, the communion procession speaks volumes about two very appealing characteristics of Catholicism. First, music serves to highlight the inclusive nature of Christianity. Regardless of how you or I might function in society, whether we sit at the head of the table or in the back of the room, we are called to live in such a way that we might enjoy full communion in Christ’s body. Our specific vocations may be different, yet each one of us is called in Baptism to share in the universal priesthood of Christ, as members of his body.

The entirety of the communion procession, albeit inclusive, also speaks to the bodily or hierarchical nature of the Church on earth. Christ is the part of the head and were are parts who work together for the healthy existence of the body at the command of the head. Similar, the priest is the head- the president, the chairperson of the people who are gathered- who acts in the person of Christ and who is a member of the assembly entrusted with leadership.

The points I’ve outlined above are solidified in the General Instruction to the Roman Missal, paragraph 86, which reads:

86. While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun, its purpose being to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the “communitarian” character of the procession to receive the Eucharist. The singing is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful…

The GIRM also states:

…Care should be taken that singers, too, can receive Communion with ease.

and this is complemented by the recommendations in another liturgical document called Sing to the Lord.  Subsequent paragraphs discuss options for music after communion, and the GIRM is very clear that both the communion procession and the optional hymn of praise which follows are both songs that involve the people.  That choral piece or vocal solo known as the “communion meditation” actually gets no mention in the GIRM.  (Stay tuned, and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel because we’ll be talking about this in a future video.) Moreover, the GIRM makes room for silence, but that moment of silence would be appropriate after the distribution of holy communion.

Although other liturgical documents support the directives of paragraph 86 of the GIRM, there are many practical reasons why parishes are reluctant to begin the communion song when the priest receives. Existing communion flow patterns might need to be modified so that the musicians can receive communion comfortably at the end of the procession. It might be necessary to repeat verses of the communion song so that it lasts for the entirety of the procession. Shorter songs might need to be relegated to other parts of the mass, adapted, retired or you may want to refresh your repertoire with new tunes.

What If My Parish Doesn’t Do It This Way?

If your parish is waiting to start the communion song, don’t worry. We are not going to dispatch the keystone liturgical police, because their nonexistence renders them quite ineffective.   At the beginning of my career, I didn’t start communion when the priest received, until I understood the rationale of the GIRM.  Then, I started asking questions like the ones you probably asked Google on your way to this blog post.  Rest assured that you’re asking the right questions. Keep asking.  Find answers. You’re just getting started. Time only exists on earth, anyway. On God’s storyboard, you’ve already figured it out- but on the human time continuum, you’re moving in the right direction. FontSound is not about judgement. We’re about encouragement.

It’s never to late to update parish norms and align the practices of your parish community with the directives of the GIRM-but, before you implement this directive in your parish, be certain first that this is an area where your position qualifies you to take leadership and make decisions in this area.  Forget upsetting the pastoral apple-cart— you will burn out the clutch on the transmission of pastoral apple-cart living, if you attempt to take leadership in an area which is best delegated to another member of the team. (#thingsIwishIknewwhenIwasyounger)

If it is determined that you have input in musical or liturgical decision making, run it by your pastor and pick a specific hard point in the liturgical year when you would like to implement this.  Hard points in the year are the first Sunday of Advent and the  first Sunday in Lent. If neither of these are possible, aim for the first weekend in October. Present this update to your colleagues at your next staff meeting, and provide specific citation from the GIRM. Then, schedule a meeting with your eucharistic ministers, music ministers and ushers about two weeks before your planned date of implementation. You may wish to invite altar servers. Be sure to invite your staffmates, even though they’ve already discussed this topic during a previous meeting and if possible, any visiting weekend presiders. Bring notes, be ready to practice the flow a few times, and make sure everyone goes home with a handout. You’ll want to begin posting notes in the sacristy two weeks in advance. Reach out to any weekend visiting presiders as well. If your parish bulletin has a staff column or you have a blog on your parish website, now is a good time to address this topic and the significance of implementing this particular instruction.

When you begin the communion song when the priest receives, it may feel awkward at first, because your parish has been accustomed to doing things differently. After a few weeks of awkwardness, there might temptation to revert to old habits. In my last parish, it took us nearly two years to get this right. During those two years, I witnessed increased lay empowerment, newfound engagement and a renewed sense of the priesthood that each one of us shares by virtue of our baptism. While this can’t solely be attributed to faithfulness to a single rubric, this sign value reinforces a message of stewardship, collaboration and each person’s equal share in the Body of Christ.

Keep in mind that if your parish decides to shift to this noble and faithful practice, you, especially as the liturgist, will receive objection from many devout, well meaning people. Some will express that other parishes wait until the cantor receives until they begin the communion song and may suggest that this is much more practical. Our worship is not about worldly practicality nor is it based in prefunctory practices. Others might opine that it is irreverant to begin the communion song when the priest receives- however this is an opinion. There are many things in the GIRM I didn’t understand, and I held strong opinions about most of these things until one of my mentors took time to explain. Rest assured that it is not disrespectful or irreverant to begin the communion song when the priest receives, but rather a best practice identified in the General Instruction to the Roman Missal. Still others might object that this unneccessarily prolongs the communion procession, but in reality, when one follows the norms of the GIRM, things just seem to fall into place, taking just enough time to fill the senses, but not so much that we get bored. They actually move along more efficiently, although perhaps not in the world’s sense of efficiency– which is cool, because after all, we aren’t citizens of this world, anyway.

One of the things I love about liturgy is that it is formulaic, and not absolute. It allows for variety, based on the variables of language, culture, local customs and traditions of Christian spirituality. Especially since the Second Vatican Council, we’ve come to a newfound experience of God’s grace as the work of the spirit has enriched the way we communicate that grace through relevant signs perceptible to our senses. No two parishes are exactly alike, and the charism of each community allows form some pastoral adaptation of norm. Nonetheless, this charism does not indicate that we can simply dispose of norms that don’t work for our parish-and especially when these are norms are meant to unite us to one another as we are united with Christ in the supreme sacrament of his most Holy Body and Blood. The communion song begins when the communion procession begins, with the priest, as we celebrate our union in the Body of Christ who is priest, prophet and king.

Does your parish begin the communion song when the priest receives communion? Leave a comment and dive into the Font



  1. Wow! So much I didn’t know about how the communion song fits into the liturgy! Thanks for enlightening me. 🙂

  2. This is a very thorough explanation! Thank you for putting this together. Our current Mass time doesn’t have music. At our old Mass time, the choir would come down and receive communion first, then return to the loft to begin the communion song.

  3. I guess I’ve never paid attention to when the music actually starts. I’ll have to watch for that next Sunday:)

  4. Thank you for covering this topic. As an organist and music director I have liturgical issues with this particular Instruction. I always begin a communion song as soon as the priest starts to receive — this symbolizes that the priest is also receiving what the people are going to receive and it is the same Body and Blood of the Lord. What makes the procession complicated is trying to carry a hymnal when you are about to use your hands to receive communion. Take a look at the large churches in Europe. They have the choir sing a short communion verse and then they let the organist accompany the procession — allowing the congregation to listen to great organ music and keep their hands and entire selves free to receive. One lady said to me: “It was so nice NOT to have to sing while going to communion. It was very meditative and personal.” I know this goes against your made-up rule of singing while walking, I think it works. (I must admit that sometimes I have the communicants sing a repetitious Taize song while processing.)

  5. The GIRM states that the “Communion CHANT” should begin when the priest receives communion. This is not the same as the Communion hymn. There are Propers of the Mass that are included, but not required, and the communion chant refers to the Communion ANTIPHON (proper for the day). There is also an Introit and Offertory Antiphon that we can choose to sing. These are in English, in a Psalm type format, with a refrain and verses. It is organized in a way that it can be sung and the people can respond to the refrain as they would a Psalm, without having to sing the verses (which the cantor sings). The GIRM states that if a communion hymn is to be used that care should be taken to end the chant in a timely manner.

    It also says that should you not choose to use the chant (Antiphon) you can use another hymn that fits the readings for the day.

    In a choir situation (ours is in the choir loft) I have been working to have a cantor begin singing (either the Antiphon or an appropriate hymn) while the choir files out to receive communion (someone comes up to the choir loft). The cantor and organist can receive last, then they can begin the communion hymn, which is announced to the congregation. I am working to pick familiar communion hymns that the congregation knows and thus will not need a hymnal to sing.

    Thankfully we have a large church where the congregation actually sings. I have been to a lot of churches and have not seen anyone walking down the isle holding a hymnal while coming to receive communion. Most of the time they leave the hymnal behind. This is why a familiar communion hymn is so important.

    Just my thoughts.

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